World Federation of Science Journalists

Iraqi science journalism: against all odds


March 6, 2008

They are the three musketeers: Haider Najm, Hadi Alusamy and Kawthar Zubayde, a trio of science journalists from Baghdad, a city where both scientists and journalists share a particular threat: assassination by shadowy gunmen trapped in an endless cycle of revenge and retribution. And that's in addition to the power cuts, the lack of running water, the effort that something like grocery shopping requires, the constant fears for friends and family. Still, deadlines must be met!

The three know when times get bad, that they are not alone. Kawthar is a 30-year-old political reporter for Aswat Al Iraq (Voices of Iraq)[http://www.aswataliraq.info/look/english/index.tpl], an independent news agency and website run by the Reuters Foundation with the help of the United Nations. She is mentored by veteran Egyptian author and journalist Dr Magdy Said of the IslamOnline website.

(left to right) Haidar Nigm Abdalzihra, reporter at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper - Hadi Hassan, reporter at Al Taakhi newspaper - Kawthar Abdalameer Muhssan, reporter at Aswat Al Irak newspaper

Hadi, who is based at the 40-year-old Al Taakhi (''Brotherhood'') newspaper, is supported by Lebanese environmental magazine editor Raghida Haddad of Al-Bia Wal-Tanmia [http://www.mectat.com.lb] (Environment and Development).

And Haider, a print journalist from the daily Asharq Al-Awsat [www.asharqalawsat.com/english] (which translates as ''The Middle East'), relies on Hatem Sedky, a senior editor from the longstanding Cairo newspaper Al Ahram [www.ahram.org.eg (Arabic), English is www.weekly.ahram.org.eg]

The relationships are part of the Science Journalism Cooperative (SjCOOP) project of the World Federation of Science Journalists.

So earlier this year the three set out to join colleagues from Africa, elsewhere in the Middle East, as well as people from Australia, Indonesia, Europe and North America in the rich state of Qatar in the Gulf region.

Coming to the capital, Doha, was not without its challenges. They could not travel to Qatar over the Persian Gulf directly from Baghdad. They had to pass further west, through Amman, Jordan, which has been overrun with Iraqi refugees. Their flight from Baghdad was delayed, with the next flight many hours away, and they missed their connecting flight. The cautious authorities gave them a room but ''borrowed'' their passports to ensure that the reporters went to Doha. "We are used to challenges, we are used to it," says Hadi.

"Iraqis have a special situation,'' Kawthar asserts. ''We have a lot of challenges in doing most things. Even if you have a visa, ticket and you are ready to travel, a curfew may suddenly be put in place and your effort frustrated."

The three took time out to talk to MIT Knight Fellow and SjCOOP member Akin Jimoh, founder of the Development Communications Network in Lagos, Nigeria. They met in a sunny corner of the atrium at the sports centre at Doha's Education City to say that all three came to Doha to join the global family of science journalists, to take advantage of opportunities to network with colleagues and learn about the freedom of the press

"It is important to have science as part of our culture and the SjCOOP provides cross-cultural learning,'' Haider asserted. ''Science helps humanity; it is a great service which can help combat the agonies of the Iraqis. Irrespective of the potential of our past there is now backwardness in science, technology and the environment - and in science journalism.''

Kawthar, a former political reporter, has used the mentoring programme to do more environmental reporting on life-and-death issues such as water polluted with petroleum, the after-effects from the deadly US chemical weapons left behind after their war with Saddam Hussein, waste piling up from unsupervised industries and drinking water contaminated with human waste because of the non-maintenance of sewers and the sanitation pipes.

''I wasn't doing these stories at all beforehand, fortunately my editor encouraged me to do this programme,'' she said. ''My relationship is good with my mentor, even though the internet is weak in Iraq. I have benefited from his analysis of my grammar and now we need to focus on my journalism, on the content.''

Hadi, married with a new baby boy, was also once a political reporter. He says he has ''divorced the politics'' to become a science reporter about a year ago. In that time, with the help of his mentor, he was among a group of people who convinced his editor to devote a page every day to health and environmental issues not merely because it was ''the right thing to do'' but to help bridge the divide from a weekly to a daily publication. His page is being credited for the surge in readership from 25,000 to 40,000. ''I helped to increase public awareness. He also reports for the same news agency as Kawthar, Aswat Al Iraq (Voices of Iraq), and keeps in touch with his Lebanese mentor Raghida Haddad through weekly Skype meetings. ''It's very effective. I can ask her about anything.''

Hadi had particular praise for the world's first online science journalism course, done by Jan Lublinski of Germany with the help of Julie Clayton in Britain. ''It's like a thirsty man stumbling upon an oasis.''

* The same trio travelled via Egypt to Kenya in 2006 for the United Nations climate change conference but was stuck at Jomo Kenyatta airport for five days before having to leave. War torn Iraq did not have a Kenyan embassy – or many other diplomatic representatives – in order to be issued with a visa. Nadia el-Awady of IslamOnline, as president of the Arab Science Journalists Association, undertook to have the visas issued via the Kenyan embassy in Cairo. But that roundabout process takes far more time. The Iraqis ran out of time and arrived, hoping that the visas would be available at the airport. But the Kenyan authorities had been severely criticised for ''bending the rules'' for politically well-connected visitors who overstayed their visa welcome and were implicated in drug-dealing. So the government was very strict, and stopped all three Iraqis, as well as the Cameroonian and Jordanian science reporters at the airport. WFSJ’s interventions with Kenyan Immigration, through some consulates and well-connected Kenyans were to no avail. After 5 days of waiting to get visas, our Iraqi friends – with the Cameroonians and Jordanians – had to fly back home.

So this WFSJ function in Doha was the first time the Iraqis had been a physical presence with the whole group - but not the last!

- Christina Scott, SciDev.Net, Cape Town, South Africa